Must-Know Modern Homes: The Robie House

The Frederick C. Robie House in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood is Frequently considered the greatest example of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie-style homes. From the first decade of the 20th century, Wright developed his own approach to architecture that responded to the Midwestern scene, freed in the prevailing Victorian architecture (a style he followed during the previous decade because his work evolved) and strove to get a democratic ideal. Formal traits of the Prairie style include, as he also wrote, “softly sloping roofs, low proportions, quiet sky lines, suppressed heavy-set chimneys and sheltering overhangs, low terraces and out-reaching walls sequestering private gardens”

Appreciation of the home was nearly instant, thanks in no small part to Wright himself, who picked up and left his clinic (and individual relationships) in Oak Park, just west of Chicago, and trekked to Europe to help assemble the famed Wasmuth Portfolio of his work. His passing helped cement the Robie House since the peak of the Prairie style, and if he returned a year later his architecture took a new course, less stylistically rooted in the previous century. Even though the Robie House appears traditional a century later (partly because of successors replicating Wright stylistically), its own striking cantilevers and horizontal lines, open plan and advanced mechanical systems looked forward to new paths of domesticity.

Robie House at a Glance
Year constructed: 1910
Frank Lloyd Wright
Location: Chicago
Seeing info: Guided and group tours available
Size: 9,000 square feet

Longer: 10 Must-Know Modern Homes

Frank Lloyd Wright’s customer, the engineer and bike maker Frederick C. Robie, was not yet 30 years old when he commissioned Wright to design him a home. Before he found Wright, other architects really responded to his listing of have-nots — wooden home, cramped spaces — with, “You want one of those damn Wright homes”

Along with having preferences away from the prevailing traditional designs, Robie was quoted as stating, “I wanted sunlight in my living room before I went into work, and that I wished to have the ability to look out and down the street to my neighbors without needing them invade my privacy” I am imagining Robie did not expect such a stunning and iconic style to direct from his fantasies.

The Robie House is located on the northeast corner of South Woodlawn Avenue and East 58th Street, on the edge of the University of Chicago campus. Across the street is that the college’s Graduate School of Business, however if the home has been completed, the view has been open into the Midway Plaisance Park one block to the south west.

Wright exploited the view, and Robie’s desire for sunlight and to look in his neighbors, through expansive glass walls facing south west. Within this straight-on perspective of the south elevation, the home’s three degrees could be grasped: Just below street level is the billiard room, playroom and garage (from frame to the right); the elevated first degree is where the dining and living rooms, kitchen and servants’ quarters are located; the smaller third floor with bedrooms covers the construction.

On the left side of the third floor is the chimney, among the most important components in Wright’s residential architecture, Prairie and later. As we’ll see, the hearth on the first two floors serves to split up the expansive open programs.

One way of ascertaining if a Prairie-style home is designed by Wright or someone else is to ask, “Where’s the front door?” If the solution is, ” Right there,” it’s designed by someone else, because Wright tended to conceal the entrances from passersby. This is even more pronounced in the Robie House, in which the entrance is located on the north side of the home, under the large overhanging western eave viewed here.

The south side and low brick wall maintain solitude along the long pavement, but Wright put the entrance on the north to take advantage of the cooling aspects of the roofing. Writer and critic Reyner Banham applauded that, stating, “It supplies a cool-air tank that operates so efficiently, even on still thundery times of high humidity”

Even with a straightforward view of the west facade, the entrance is difficult to determine (it’s to the left of the bowed windows beneath the roof). The brick wall is greater here than on the south side, providing a stronger sense of privacy and safety, even as the road to the entrance is a few feet off.

In these photos from Wright’s Wasmuth Portfolio, systems old and new are highlighted: the hearth (a view of the next floor, I think), and the perimeter lighting and wood grilles in the living room ceiling on the right. The latter is of particular interest, due to the way they work collectively and with the rest of the home (they accompany the rhythm of the chimney), and also the way their ornamentation deflects the mechanical creativity set up.

The integral lighting happened not only with all the globes but also above the timber grilles. They provided a dappled light in the edge of the space. However, the cavity above the grilles also functioned to help ventilate the space in the warm months and draw the humidity out in the both well-integrated radiators in the cold months.

So, is the measure in the ceiling just to accommodate the 2 forms of lighting and the venting? No. The main reason behind it is the steel beams that allow the big, open spaces and striking cantilevers. And herein lies one particular region where the Robie House is a trailblazing modern house. While the steel construction might be masked from the stepped ceiling and wood trim, it had been known to architects that watched Wright’s drawings. The home of steel, concrete and brick pointed forward to fresh means of residential construction.

Much has been written about the routines on the glass in Wright’s Prairie houses, largely the way they’re abstraction of grasses and plants located on prairie landscapes. That certainly comes from the bowed window on the west side of the living space, but so does the way the vertical thrust of these abstractions is balanced from the diagonals, as if the latter were stretched vertically, strengthening the prevailing geometries of the home (horizontal lines and low slopes).

This close-up of the globe light with square framework exemplifies how Wright straddled 19th-century notions of design (especially evident in all that wood trim around the light) and 20th-century moderniziation (hardwired lighting). Additionally, it is interesting to check in this fixture relative to some lamp from Greene & Greene’s Gamble House; Wright’s fixture looks rather primitive in comparison.

Even near 50 years after the home’s completion, House and Home magazine stated (in 1957), “The home introduced so many theories in planning and construction that its full influence cannot be measured accurately for many years to come. With this home, much of contemporary architecture as we know it now, might not exist”

Contrast this statement with Philip Johnson’s insult that Wright had been “the best architect of the 19th century” and his departing Wright from the 1932 International Style exhibition at MoMA. Wright’s modern architecture was not the same as what came to be called modernism in the decades after the Robie House.

House and Home‘s exalted praise of the Robie House arrived the year its owner, the Chicago Theological Seminary, threatened to demolish the home to make way for a dormitory. (Robie and his wife lived in the home for a limited while and then sold it to another family, who dwelt in the home and subsequently sold it to the seminary in 1926.) Wright, nearing 90, traveled to Chicago alongside multiple protesters to stop the demolition. Due to a range of factors, the building was saved and has since become an architectural masterpiece open to the public, courtesy of the University of Chicago and the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust, which restored the home in the 21st century.

Banham, Reyner. Age of the Experts: A Personal View of Modern Architecture. Harper & Row. Banham, Reyner. The Architecture of the Well-tempered Environment. University of Chicago Press, 1969. Curtis, William J.R. Modern Architecture Since 1900. Prentice-Hall, third edition, 1996 (first published in 1982).The Frederick C. Robie HouseGill, Brendan. Many Masks: A Life of Frank Lloyd Wright. Da Capo, 1998. Larkin, David and Pfeiffer, Bruce Brooks, eds. Frank Lloyd Wright Masterworks. Rizzoli. Twombly, Robert, ed. Frank Lloyd Wright: Essential Texts. W.W. Norton, 2009.

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